Are you concerned about your child’s eating habits? Mealtimes often become frustrating for both children and parents.
A recurring response, when you share your concern, might be – children will eat if they are hungry! While this may be true for some kids, for others, this might affect their nutritional status and grow up into their later years of life as well. A health survey conducted in 2018, shows that nearly 72% of kids in UK do not consume the recommended portions of fruits and vegetables every day. This can result in an insufficient intake of dietary fibre and essential micronutrients.
It might feel like an uphill task to make kids eat more fruits or vegetables. However, this is a familiar turf for me, not just as a mother, but also as a Nutritionist who works closely with parents, and let me break it down you.
Why are children apprehensive to taste new foods?
Eating is a complex sensory process, as it involves a complete sensory experience including aroma, appearance, texture and flavour. In fact, children’s taste buds are more receptive to bitterness, especially due to the evolutionary aspect of keeping safe from toxic foods. Likewise, infants exhibit an innate preference for mild sweet foods, especially mother’s milk. Although, it is the biological aspect of evolution, taste preferences can definitely be modulated as children grow older.
Kids go through several phases of fussy eating during childhood and some of them are due to developmental reasons. For example, your one year old might be less interested in foods than earlier, primarily because her energy needs aren’t the same as her first year of life, as the growth rate slows. Furthermore, toddlers are more curious in exploring their surroundings and like to assert their independence. Fussy eating is normally observed in kids of 2-3 years of age and may continue up to 6 years, wherein children may have certain go-to foods, and may not expand their variety or sometimes even drop some of their favourite foods.
Another reason why your child may be hesitant to try different foods is Food neophobia. Yes! You guessed it right. It is a fear of unfamiliar foods. In contrast to fussy/picky eating, children with food neophobia don’t want to try any new foods, as they are apprehensive towards the taste or texture and assume it might be unpleasant. Evidently, food neophobia falls into a type of sensory food aversion. Kids with sensory food aversion will need guidance from specialists working in this area.
Now that you know why kids may behave the way they do, what’s the secret ingredient that will encourage your kids to try new foods? It is not just one ingredient, rather a concoction of several aspects that will resolve your dinner table woes, as I call it the 3P’s: Perseverance, Patience and Promoting positive exposure around foods.
Involve your child in meal planning
A study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior in 2021, showed that children involved in selecting recipes, purchasing ingredients and cooking at school, resulted in them to be more interested in trying new foods. You can make a fun activity out of this at home, where your family could come together, pick a recipe and cook dinner.
Model eating habits
Family forms the basis of social context, where children learn eating behaviour. If you would like your child to be more adventurous in eating a variety of foods then you should lead them on this journey, by being a model to them.
Pair familiar with unfamiliar foods
If you want your child to try peas for the first time, always pair it with a safe food in the plate that your child likes. They may not want to it try it at first, but it takes out the pressure of eating, if only peas were to be served. Offer one new food at a time and provide several exposures.
A systematic review published in 2018, found that repeated taste exposure helped to increase vegetable consumption in kids. It is said that children may need 8-10 exposures, periodically to accept foods. You can also provide sensory experience with food, like asking your toddler to help you wash fruits, or asking your school going kid to help you chop vegetables and knead dough. This provides familiarity, reinforces the positive connection and builds the confidence to taste a food.
Make mealtimes fun: Kids love shapes and colors. Put on your creative hat and make dishes more interesting for your child. You could use a cookie cutter to cut out different shapes from a sandwich or rainbow salad and serve it in a see-through bowl, to make it more visually appealing.
Consistency: Above everything else, it is pertinent to be consistent and remember it takes time to build a healthy relationship with food. Asking your child to eat one last bite or finish everything in their plate can interfere with their innate hunger and satiety cues. It will take a while for kids to get attuned to their internal cues, especially if they have been disrupted by external influences. However, it’s never too late to start, try and adapt these steps in a way that works best for your family.
Meenu holds a M.H.Sc in Food Science and Nutrition, University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad.She has 6 years of experience working as a Nutritionist. Her area of specialisation is Child and Sports Nutrition and she is also interested in the functional aspects of nutrition, applications of nutrigenomics and the importance of gut health.